Carin Papendorp: My Undercover Mission to a Crisis Pregnancy Center

Please note that this is an Opinion piece, whose perspective does not necessarily represent the views of AMS or all AMS students. MURMUR welcomes all perspectives and publishes thoughtful Opinion pieces with medical perspectives written by AMS students.

 

Earlier this year, I received an email from a representative at NARAL (formerly known as the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League), the nation’s largest pro-choice organization, asking if I would go undercover to investigate fake women’s clinics in Massachusetts. How could I say no to an undercover mission? Crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs) – under the guise of being safe spaces for women to consider reproductive options – offer free pregnancy tests and ultrasounds, hoping to persuade pregnant women to become parents or pursue adoption. From the outside, they can be hard to distinguish from legitimate women’s health centers. So I feigned a missed period and made an appointment for a pregnancy test at a clinic in Massachusetts.

Going into this experience, I felt conflicted. Although I believe that every woman should have access to abortion, I recognize the importance of freedom of speech. Even if CPCs have a political agenda, are they actually wrong? The Supreme Court recently ruled “no,” voting 5-4 in favor of CPCs. But I was disturbed by what I experienced at the CPC. Though they may not be unconstitutional, I found CPCs to be manipulative and unethical.

To attract clients, the CPC intentionally presented itself in a nondescript way. From the neutral language on the website to the bland art in the waiting room, there was no trace of religious affiliation until my appointment began. But during my visit, the provider asked if I believed in “our lord and savior Jesus Christ” and if I thought I would go to heaven when I die. Asking about religious beliefs in an open-ended way can sometimes enhance a medical encounter. But it’s deceptive for CPCs to present themselves as secular institutions when they clearly are not.

Moreover, it’s wrong for CPCs to advertise medical services—often including the word “medical” in their names—when there may be no medical professionals or services available on site. For example, when I arrived at the CPC, I was told that all the nursing staff had had to leave suddenly. Even worse, some of the information I received was not medically sound. The provider claimed that if I started a medication abortion and had regrets, I could reverse the pill’s effects by calling a hotline within 24 hours. There is no scientific evidence for abortion pill reversal. She also warned of an oft-quoted, but repeatedly disproven, link between abortion and depression. When I’m a doctor, I will strive to provide my patients with accurate, unbiased information—not slanted half-truths. If CPCs pose as medical centers, they must do the same.

Ironically, while pro-life advocates raise uproar about government funding for Planned Parenthood, millions of dollars in state and federal funds go to CPCs. In fact, while many abortion clinics have been forced to close due to lack of funding, CPCs are flourishing: CPCs outnumber abortion clinics in every state in the U.S., sometimes by a factor of ten to one.

Even if it’s constitutional for taxpayer dollars to fund fake women’s health centers, CPCs are simply not a good investment. Legitimate clinics like Planned Parenthood provide crucial preventive services like testing for sexually transmitted infections, Pap smears, and contraception. Meanwhile, CPCs only offer free over-the-counter pregnancy tests and (sometimes) ultrasound. Even the patient education at CPCs is lacking: when I asked the CPC provider if she could refer me to a gynecologist who could prescribe birth control, she advised me to walk into an emergency department and ask if anyone there could help me.

I also wonder if CPCs provide equitable care, the way a true medical facility should. In my visit to the CPC, I presented myself as a white, Christian, and English-speaking. Would I have received the same sympathy if I had looked and acted differently? I don’t know. The CPC provider asked about the race of the father of the baby. When I responded that he was white, she stated that in that case, I would have “no problem” finding a family to adopt the baby. We paged through bound booklets made by families seeking an open adoption. All these families looked the same: white, Christian, and heterosexual. The provider at the CPC did treat me with ostensible kindness. But empathy is not true empathy if it only extends to certain people.

“Empathy is not true empathy if it only extends to certain people.”

Ultimately, I volunteered to visit this CPC because I thought it would be an interesting adventure. If my heart was pounding during my visit, it was because I was afraid that my lie would be exposed. But I was privileged to visit a CPC by choice, not out of desperation.

CPCs use taxpayer dollars to advantage of women at their most vulnerable. When emotions are high and time is essential, CPCs shame and pressure women into following their pro-life agenda.

This was just one visit to one CPC. But, according to research by NARAL, CPCs across the country use the same deceptive tactics. What crisis pregnancy centers are doing may not be unconstitutional. But – having visited one myself – I can say that they are unethical.

 

Carin Papendorp is a second year medical student at the Alpert Warren Medical School. She is pursuing both an MD and PhD at Brown University. Carin is also a leader of the SexEd by Brown Med preclinical elective at AMS.

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